So this has been a fairly daunting task. I tried to write this post immediately after the announcement of a new soccer club in Cincinnati but everything was too raw and fresh to be coherent. After some time to collect my thoughts and talking with Gary De Jesus, Senior Vice President of Marketing/Communications for FC Cincinnati (FCC), I was finally able to write it all out. My biggest concern remains the lack of authenticity from this club and how it manifests that in its branding and marketing.
My generation, the target demo of anyone promoting soccer, craves authenticity. That’s why we buy craft beer, advertisers hawk us stuff with the words like “artisanal,” “local,” & “fair-trade,” and in general we are wary of things that appear overly corporate.
It is incredibly hard to define what authenticity is. I know, I went down a philosophy rabbit hole for a few hours and came out questioning whether I could honestly make any decisions without being controlled deterministically by some company’s marketing department. I even consulted a friend with a philosophy degree and his own podcast on the subject to no avail. To be fair, it’s an impossible question. You can’t define authenticity.
On the other hand, inauthenticity strikes us immediately as a gut feeling. The NYCFC supporters who get in brawls with opposing fans and scream, “Who are ya!” right out of Green Street Hooligans are blatantly inauthentic. When that same club hands out terrible song sheets, it also feels fake. The racist, faux right-wing hooligan supporters group (SG) for FCC, the Bailey Boys, are laughable. (To the club’s credit, they have stated,”We want nothing to do with them.”) On the other hand, inauthenticity isn’t always negative: the kid who comes to the soccer bar to watch EPL for the first time with his kit and scarf and carefully researched facts and opinions (that was me years ago!) is obviously inauthentic to the veterans.
I’m not here to talk about individuals’ authenticity. To become a fan of something, it takes a leap of faith (my article on my disdain for the slur “plastic”). Sometimes you have to push the boat out a bit, do something that makes you feel uncomfortable and fake to get into it. A fan’s creation, Sir Cinci, feels a little silly to me (and Louisville and Detroit fans) but his fan-ness is for him to pursue however he feels. I didn’t grow up in North London so when I became an Arsenal fan, it definitely felt unnatural and forced. Our soccer culture in Cincinnati is still in its infancy and will take time to coalesce with identity and traditions.
What concerns me about FCC is the seeming inauthenticity from an organization that is supposed to be better than that, an organization which has ostensibly paid people to craft a message that resonates with the soccer fans of Cincinnati. The burden of authenticity rests on the club and I’ve seen a lot from FCC so far that has made me, and many of the soccer fans I know, cringe.
- The Name: Fútbol Club Cincinnati. There is a whole argument about Football Club versus Soccer Club and Europeanisms like Sporting, Real, and United that I don’t even care to get into (it’s cool with me up to a point and definitely better than mascots). But why Fútbol? I don’t get the impression that FCC is trying to reach out to the Hispanic community. For a city of its size, the metro area of Cincinnati is only 2.5% Hispanic. And not a single club communique has come out in Spanish (I think they obviously need to reach out to that community). When the club’s logo description page claims their plan is to play “fast-paced, European-style Fútbol,” you aren’t really saying anything. MLS is fast and the English league is generally regarded as the fastest league in the world. De Jesus shared that he took inspiration from the current vogue of European-style names, specifically FC Dallas and their transformation from Dallas Burn. The upside of the name is that it’s a blank canvas which allows fans to come up with a nickname more organically. I think this is overall a smart choice by the management, unless the fans pick “The Orange”, as that doesn’t rhyme with anything.
- The Colors: Orange and Blue. Management could have chosen colors which have a connection to the City of Cincinnati, but they missed an opportunity here. Nothing of note in Cincinnati is orange and blue. The Reds are, well, red; the Bengals are orange and black; Xavier is blue and white; the city’s flag is red, white, and blue; and both the Cyclones and UC are red and black. The club has revealed that the colors were chosen because they weren’t shared by any MLS team (which is their ambition to become). De Jesus is from New York and claimed his own affinity for the Mets and Knicks as being partial inspiration. Surely most Cincinnatians don’t share a passion for those colors.
- The Logo: Again it doesn’t say anything about the city. The crown is a reference to the “Queen City” but it’s quite esoteric. The idea, again from the logo description page, is that “the winged lion is the symbol of Saint Mark the Evangelist, the patron saint of Venice” and that they’d like to be evangelists for soccer. Ok… every club would like to expand soccer. What connection does Cincinnati have with Venice or its patron saint? Does FCC plan on developing connections with Cincinnati’s large Catholic community, a strategy used by the Cincy Saints? If you take the name Cincinnati off the logo, there wouldn’t be a single identifiable attribute that is from our city. When asked out this, De Jesus didn’t have an answer. This is in direct contrast with Sacramento & Indy’s logos. My father, an Indy native and a man who has always had an indifferent attitude towards soccer, was convinced to buy tickets in large part to the connection he felt with the Eleven’s branding.
- The Marketing Campaign: The chants and commercials thus far have been . . . poorly received (if you want to relive that, here it is). It is not a secret that the ownership are American Football people and they appear to be on less steady ground when it comes to soccerisms. It feels like someone googled “soccer chants” and just made it FCC specific (with the wrong number of syllables). De Jesus explained that they weren’t intended as chants but “atmosphere,” an unconvincing explanation. Their “Be the One” campaign lacks a coherent meaning. Colored powder doesn’t really have any tradition in soccer that I know of. And what “wall” are we supposed to be manning? You can only afford to give away one season ticket in this contest when trying to get at least 10,000 people to come to the stadium? Why is it called the “bailey” and how can you define these things halfway but then claim that the fans will decide for themselves what they mean?
- Supporters Groups & Staff: I go to a lot of soccer events in the city. I’ve been a Saints season ticket holder, been to Dutch Lions and UC games, and am in the pub for almost every Arsenal and US Soccer match. I haven’t seen the staff of FC Cincy or the people running the SGs at those events other than when they have a specific, pro-FCC reason to be there. When I asked The Pride’s (the main FCC SG) president what kind of atmosphere they wanted to create in the “Bailey”, the rowdy fan section, he said they didn’t want “everybody clap your hands” from the Cha Cha Slide played over the PA. The scenario he described doesn’t happen and has never happened at any soccer match, anywhere. That happens at a Reds game. The club has made the correct decision in avoiding music and PA prompts during matches and encouraging drums, chants with foul language, and smoke bombs a la Sounders but if your goal is to create an atmosphere like the Nordecke or The Brougham End in Seattle, how can your SG foster that without a deeper (read first hand) understanding of that culture?
- Relationships with Saints: This maybe deserves its own article, but there was a lot of bad blood initially between FCC and the Cincy Saints contingent, the largest, verifiable live-soccer attending population in the city. When asked, De Jesus said they were left completely out of any potential partnership because FCC had no interest in Saints’s NPSL license and couldn’t have talked with them as that would have let out information prior to their acquisition of a stadium deal. He said that he wished the Saints would have stayed in Cincinnati and played opposite weekends. He said that FCC would have worked with them to do so.
While I spoke with De Jesus about authenticity, his biggest concern was purpose, a similar concept but different in important ways. He defined the club’s purpose as “fanning the embers of soccer culture in Cincinnati” in part by developing and expanding youth soccer programs in the city. That is spot on but their purpose, and specifically how broadly it is defined, is indistinguishable from any other soccer club in the United States. How does that plain a purpose resonate and inspire a personal connection with a Cincinnatian? They also want to have a very heavy focus on charitable organizations within the city as their personal connection. That is a very, very laudable initiative and I wholly support their decision to do that work. Nevertheless, the decision to focus on charitable initiatives comes across as good corporate citizenship as opposed to things that fit, by nature, a soccer club.
I think these things are partially the problem of viewing soccer fanship through a football or baseball lens. Nobody cares that there aren’t any Bengal tigers in Cincy, Bears in Chicago, or a jazz tradition in Utah. The colors red and orange are now bedrock levels for Cincinnati and no fan is asking why. The corporate influence on those sports isn’t seen as a negative. Nobody has a problem with the “Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern Mutual” in college football.
Soccer is different.
Part of my concerns are rooted in a lack of diversification in marketing. De Jesus described three segments that they are attempting to reach: Families, Former soccer moms and dads who are now empty nesters, and Millennials (many of whom are already soccer fans). When attempting to reach those demographics, the easiest by far should be that last category because of their constant connection via social media and at schools, but paradoxically they seem to have the least specific message. The tweets and Facebook posts are scheduled or retweets, have hashtags and catchphrases devoid of meaning, and thus are quickly scrolled past without engagement. They have been on a tour of the pubs and have events but it doesn’t feel like they are connecting and my feelings are shared by other soccer bloggers and fans in the city. Focusing on youth soccer and charitable organizations reaches the other two demographics but doesn’t as directly engage the soccer fanatics that already exist.
The desire to “evangelize the sport of soccer” seems to leave out the people who have already been converted and that shows in their messaging.
I don’t know if the club doesn’t see them as a large enough revenue streams, thinks they’re already too attached to Saints, Crew, or EPL, or if they take for granted that they will show up anyway. De Jesus himself is one of the post-graduate soccer dads and a former President of a youth soccer organization, so maybe his personal experience leads to those being top priority. This is a critical mistake. In my experience in labor and political organizing, you must first establish trust and energy in your base (current soccer fans). When you focus directly on engaging new people, you miss the multiplying power of having engaged fans who will evangelize for you. A core tenet of the free beer movement and social media in general is that friends and family have way more power to influence people to buy a product or try something new than a commercial or flashy branding.
The desire to gain new converts first has had the exact effect of turning off the clubs potential greatest and most passionate allies.
All of these things could have easily been solved by watching and emulating the newer MLS clubs. Columbus’s recent rebrand coincided with a heavier focus on the city itself. Doing Seattle-inspired stuff would be scoffed at by the Crew supporters in Cincinnati, but it would still be a recognizable version of American soccer culture. Indy Eleven’s marketing and connection to the city of Indianapolis have been nigh unto pitch perfect and Louisville’s and Sacremento’s were also quite well done. It is no coincidence that those clubs are also some of the greatest supported in lower league soccer. Connection and perception of authenticity resonates with people and drives attendance. There’s no reason that they couldn’t have done something similar or even, if money is no object, hired one of those people to run it. De Jesus said they would like to eventually base their outreach on the Seattle model but with kickoff in four months and not a single player announced, there seems to be a lot of heavy lifting to do.
My main issue with how the club chose its branding is that there are tons of authentic Cincinnati and soccer themes that the club could have incorporated: the Ohio River, German heritage, Cincinnatus, Porkopolis, The Queen City, The City of Seven Hills, previous soccer clubs in the city, or the multi-cultural blending of north and south. I personally would have been a huge fan of a Romanesque theme and think a lot of innovative stuff could’ve been done with that. Cincinnati doesn’t really have the middle-ages castle connection that they seem to be crafting, except for the renaissance festival and that’s an hour away in Wilmington. When I asked Coach John Harkes about the lack of Cincinnati-isms on the club’s kickoff pub tour, he responded that “we play in Nippert” and “there was a good story that I can’t quite remember.”
Overall, it feels like it wasn’t run by a focus group that involved current soccer fans. If the club was interested in converting the thousands of EPL, MLS, & US Soccer fans in the Cincinnati area into FC Cincy fans, this doesn’t seem to be the way to do it. They do though appear to have reached a turning point. In the last week they’ve sat down with Cincy Gooners and Cincy Spurs and seem interested in hearing feedback. The club also has a couple of cool events lined up, including a futsal tournament at Rhinegeist. Their matchday plans also sound amazing with a tailgate and events for children, youth, and adults at the lawn and soccer field next to the stadium. They are planning on having matchday buses from their partner pubs to UC as well.
I AM very excited about this club. I plan on buying a season ticket and encouraging others to do so as well. It is quite apparent that this organization is incredibly ambitious. They will smooth out their messaging and develop their voice. They are definitely quite pro-beer, which should make everyone happy. The website is slick, the stadium is a real one capable of holding up to 19,000 fans in the current configuration (not a high school football field although it’ll be narrow and turf), and the logo and branding are cool. The money alone in the organization will carry it a very long way towards being successful. The surface level stuff looks awesome but everything underneath it feels… inauthentic, bland, corporate, and lacks soccer-ness. And that can be a big enough problem to convince people not to come or stop coming once the novelty has faded.
*Edit – The original article claimed the FCC promotional video had Saints listed with an end date. That is incorrect. Saints were listed with exclusively defunct clubs that didn’t include Cincinnati Dutch Lions, another current Cincinnati club who’s ownership has a stake in FCC.